Back in 1985 I had made my very first EVER trip in a real aircraft. A Boeing 737 flying from Amsterdam to Zurich. If you think that was pretty sad for an aviation freak such as me, at least I finally got in an aircraft and flew into the sky. And it was awesome.
But my real “never to forget” aviation experience occurred sometime in 1989 when I was part of a group of people visiting one of Holland’s youngest flying schools for a trial lesson. I think it was in early May.
It all happened because of “Dennis.”
Dennis was the principal at my daughter’s primary school. I had joined the school board, had helped Dennis with some “corporate experience,” and we had become friends. Heck, even the staff liked me.
After that we wrote a book together, my first ever, and sold 20,000 copies! It bears the exciting title Accounting for Schools. And yes, I lead an exciting life, as you can tell.
Dennis is a few years younger than I, and was member of some political party’s “youngsters division.” Whatever. Not important.
What WAS important, however, was the fact that they’d do something interesting for “team building” once a year. That year they had decided to go to the airfield at Lelystad and get a trial lesson in an Ultralight airplane. And Dennis, knowing my “aviation disease,” invited me to come along.
Of course I had to act like I was a “young democrat,” but I gladly pretended to be interested in politics for an entire afternoon.
You know, much of that trip is shrouded in clouds, literally. I can’t remember how I got to the airfield. Whether I drove down with Dennis, had my own car or joined the group in a minibus. I have no idea. Part of that day is completely blacked out.
And since there are no pictures, as far as I know, it will remain a mystery.
But I remember everything that went on at the airfield, and the flying school, to the last minute detail! From what the owner looked like—sort of a military type with a crew cut, jumpsuit and sharp eyes—to the dirty cups in which they served us coffee.
It was cold that day, maybe 12 degrees Celsius or thereabouts, with sunshine, but quite a few white, towering, fluffy, Dutch “Ruysdael clouds” in the sky. A typical “Dutch sky” as I’d call it.
There were some 12-15 people in the group and the owner told us he had 3 instructors. So some of us would fly and the others would wait. Fair enough. We’d all get our turn and that “turn” would be some 30 minutes flying.
30 minutes only? Gasp!!!
He then continued to give us a briefing and explain the general workings of an aircraft.
Duh! I knew all that, get on with it already!
I was looking out the window at the patches of blue sky and white clouds and wished the canteen was on the business side of the airfield. While pondering over these important issues, my ears suddenly picked up something disturbing.
One of the instructors was talking about “weight shift.”
That was different from anything I’d ever flown—on my computer’s flight simulator. I’d have a stick, or at least a “yoke,” but not a “bar” to hang from!
It turned out to be my lucky day. When they took us to the hangar “to get dressed” (whaddaya mean “get dressed”?)—more surprises.
It turned out they had two “trikes” and a couple of Mistrals. And we had a choice of preference.
Allow me to explain.
The trikes were nothing but a plastic toy cart on three wheels with a large kite (wing) attached overhead, and a little putt-putt engine hanging off the back somehow. You’d steer the single front wheel (nosewheel would be an exaggeration) with your feet and—once in the air—fly the entire contraption by a triangular bar rigged to the kite. Frankly, I had never paid any attention to “flying wings” until then, being a Spitfire pilot myself (albeit a virtual one).
I had come to fly an airplane, not “a kite.” So my preference was easy.
Fortunately I was one of the older participants, because all the “youngsters” wanted to fly the kite. I happily wished them all the best and comforted the few that “had” to fly the Mistrals by telling them these were REAL aircraft … sort of.
The Aviasud Mistral was a small, French Ultralight with the obligatory Rotax engine mounted up front. It looked peculiar though, because it was a reverse-stagger biplane and its wings were angled forward!
I was in the second group, so got to witness my friend Dennis get his “air initiation.” In order to get airborne, he first had to put on a huge leather coat and matching helmet. He looked pretty much like a character out of the Mad Max movies! Suited him though.
When he took off, sitting behind and somewhat above the pilot, smiling sheepishly from under the goggles, we all waved the trike goodbye. That took awhile, because these things didn’t go much faster than 30 knots on takeoff.
When they returned, Dennis was enthusiastic but shivering from the cold. Apparently the huge leather “Wyatt Earp” coat didn’t stop the cold Dutch air from penetrating his clothes. I was SO glad I’d be sitting inside a cockpit!
Even though Dennis and his instructor-for-30-minutes continued to impress on me that THEIR machine was the REAL way to fly, I didn’t buy it. For one, Dennis could not FLY the thing, because there was only ONE bar to hold onto! So there!
MY instructor did not agree either. He was a chap of 63 or so, and had learned to fly at this very school, only a few years ago. He “did” the flying lessons to pay for his mandatory hours and because he just loved flying. He also loved sitting inside a cockpit. Truly a man after my own heart.
Now, trying to get into an airplane that has double wings of flimsy whimsical plastic sticking out in all the wrong places (which you are told NOT to touch) proved quite the chore. Especially as I am 6 feet tall. I remember there was a small step on part of the landing gear that you had to tread on. It looked so flimsy, I half expected to break the undercarriage while getting in.
I managed to insert myself without shattering anything, mostly by sheer will power and determination to get airborne.
One thing that helped getting into the fiberglass shell of a cockpit was the fact that there wasn’t a yoke, or stick, in front of the pilot.
Leave it to the French to be creative! The stick was positioned in between the two seats and looked like one half of a motorcycle grip sticking out of the floor. I think it had a hand brake on it too. And the throttle. WEIRD!
Apart from that, the rest looked reasonably familiar. There was a walky-talky of sorts stuck onto the panel, with two headsets running from it. The usual instruments for speed, altitude, and fuel were present and … not much else. (Other than a few weird sticks at my feet, pretending to be rudder pedals … I guess.)
But here’s the strange thing.
Once he fiddled with some switches, tested the headphones and mikes, pushed the throttle and TRIED to taxi out, the instructor shut the engine off, got OUT and left me on my own.
Then he started pulling like mad on the prop.
I thought something had broken and he was trying to pull the prop off, but it turned out the little plane’s nosewheel couldn’t get out of a tiny indentation in the grass.
I would have helped him pull the thing out, had he told me!
So here’s my first experience in Ultralights. You can’t taxi the darned things if you park them against a clump of grass!
Once we got everything sorted out and bounced around for a bit over the grass runway, we finally took to the skies. But this was nothing like my first 737 flight, where you get pushed into the back of your seat and zoom upwards.
This felt more like being a ping pong ball in a cocktail shaker, all the time wondering when the ground will finally fall away. Or whether you are going to land on the highway at the end of the field, mixing in with the traffic.
The small Rotax had a hell of a time getting us airborne, but I was having the time of my life!
When we finally managed to get some altitude, we headed for the “mainland” and the town of Harderwijk. Lelystad is one of the new cities of The Netherlands, built in a polder, a bit of land that was still “sea” when I was young.
Imagine seeing the familiar roads and meadows and towns—the ones I had seen for so many decades, over and over again—but they all looked so different … from the air!
Even the giant white windmills, already present back in 1989, looked small up there, with the Mistral just high enough clear their blades!
THIS, I tell you, was FLYING!
Who cares about “the ping pong effect?” I was never seasick in my life, so this wasn’t going to hurt me!
If I hadn’t been strapped in, I swear I’d have had my nose pressed firmly against the Plexiglas canopy. As it was, I sat there enjoying the experience as if I’d never done anything else—yapping away like crazy with the old instructor.
My dream came true when he finally handed me the “stick” and told me to try and fly straight and level.
That was easy.
Then he asked me to make a slow turn and maintain the nose on the horizon.
That was easy too.
I made a few more turns, and the instructor looked at me suspiciously. He told me I must have done this before, period.
I told him NEVER, but in my dreams.
And on my PC.
We soon entered into a strange discussion about “microcomputers” and “flight simulators.” He’d never heard of them, and didn’t believe me. But he let me fly the Mistral while we were talking, and time passed.
In fact, the discussion about my flying talents made HIM forget the time, so when we finally landed I had been airborne 45 whole minutes!!!
The one thing that remains vividly in my memory is pushing like crazy on the strange stick, trying to keep the UL in level flight, while some force seemed to be pushing us upwards like a rocket.
“Just let it go,” the old instructor said, seeing my white knuckles. “It’s a thermal.”
He hadn’t finished his sentence before we hit the shadow of a cloud overhead, flew into colder air, and instantaneously dropped about 100 vertical feet! Talk about turbulence.
I think my wife and family must have hated me for many months after that. Because I didn’t stop talking about, telling about, and drooling over my once-in-a-lifetime Ultralight flight at Lelystad Airport.
No, I didn’t get my pilot’s license. In fact I never got it till this day.
But I DO think that experience changed my life in a number of ways and confirmed that flying IS the thing for me to do … even with my fear of heights.
And hey, if I can’t fly (… yet), at least I can write about it.
Stay tuned for more.
About the Author
François A. Dumas. Yes, his second name really is Alexandre, but he didn’t write The Three Musketeers. He could have, though, because he’s a writer, a painter, a computer geek, an aviation freak and quite a few other things as well. So his “bio” depends on the audience it is aimed at.
In the case of Why Fly it will suffice to tell you that François was born and raised in The Netherlands, and has been trying to get out of there ever since (so far with little permanent success).
But he has traveled the world since he was three years old, married a foreign girl (they are STILL together after 35 years), and worked at a newspaper for 8 years before turning to IT. He spent 20 years as an executive working for a US company running IT teams in 21 countries, and then finally started his own company at the ripe age of 52.
Along the way he spent 50 years gazing at airplanes, reading about airplanes, building model airplanes and, ultimately, learning to fly real ones. Due to lack of money, lack of time and lack of money again, he never got a license. But … he did get to be a renowned flight sim specialist, writing in magazines and internet sites, and he now runs his own “flight-sim add-on company.”
If it flies on a PC, François knows about it!
And of course he still hangs out at any airfield whenever he gets a chance.